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Frannie Hannon pulled her eyes away from the computer screen and swiveled around in the wooden office chair to see her two gorgeous cousins, Jasmine and Summer, standing in front of the front desk of the Big Sky Bed & Breakfast. Summer's long, dark hair fell in a tousled cascade of curls to her shoulders, where it lay in dramatic contrast against the red silk of her short chic dress.
"Give me your honest opinion, Frannie." Summer ran a hand through the loose waves in her normally straight hair. "Do you think Gavin will think curls look good on me?"
Frannie pushed her tortoiseshell glasses higher up on her nose, a dry smile curving the corners of her lips. "Your husband would think you looked gorgeous if you shaved your head and painted your skull green. And the annoying thing about it is, he'd be right."
It was the absolute truth. With her beautiful Native American features, deep chocolate eyes and wide, expressive mouth, Summer Nighthawk was breathtaking. But then, so was Jasmine Monroe, with her close-cropped dark hair, delicate features and creamy pale skin. Either woman's face or figure could stop traffic and a man's heart at fifty paces.
All mine could stop is a clock, Frannie thought ruefully. A familiar twinge of inferiority tweaked at her heart. She'd grown up here in Whitehorn, Montana, with Summer, Jasmine and Jasmine's equally gorgeous sister, Cleo, and she viewed them more as sisters than as cousins. Their mothers, in fact, were sisters. Frannie's mom, Yvette, and Jasmine's and Cleo's mom, Celeste, ran a bed-and-breakfast in the rambling arts and crafts-style manor house. Summer's mother, Blanche, had died shortly after Summer's birth, so Celeste and Yvette had raised their sister's daughter as one of their own.
The four cousins had all grown up together. They'd spent summers splashing in the waters of Blue Mirror Lake and winters toboganning down the foothills of the Crazy Mountains. They'd shared their dreams and their secrets, their toys and their clothes. They were family in every sense of the word, and yet sometimes, when Frannie looked at her cousins, she found it hard to believe she'd come from the same gene pool.
Times like now. Summer was so dark and exotic, Jasmine so fair and fragile. Next to them, Frannie always felt like a little brown mouse.
Well, not little, exactly, she thought ruefully. Tall and gawky was more like it. At five-foot, nine-inches, Frannie's height was the only exceptional thing about her. There was nothing special about her light brown hair except its unruly nature, which was why Frannie kept it clamped back in a tight ponytail. Her skin was clear and fair, but her features were unremarkable. Her eyes were an okay shade of hazel, but she kept them hidden behind her large, tortoiseshell-framed glasses. Oh, she had her own unique characteristics, of course—her nose was faintly freckled, her figure was on the scrawny side, and she grew incredibly clumsy whenever she was nervous—but overall, she was drab, colorless and non de script.
Which suited her just fine, Frannie reminded herself. It was better to fade into the background than to stick out and be ridiculed. In fact, she deliberately cultivated an inconspicuous look. She dressed to blend in, wearing brown or beige suits for her job at the Whitehorn Savings and Loan, and jeans and shapeless sweaters, like the baggy gray one she was wearing now, on evenings and weekends.
When it came to her appearance, Frannie didn't kid herself. She was plain, and she knew it. She'd made peace with that fact years ago, and now, at twenty-six, she knew there was no point in pretending to be something she wasn't.
"So what do you think?" Jasmine prompted. She waved her hand toward Summer's hair as if she were Vanna White pointing to a grand prize. "Am I a maestro with a curling iron, or what?"
"You are the Queen of Coif." Frannie leaned back in the rolling chair and gazed approvingly at Summer. "You look great. But what's the special occasion? You and Gavin haven't been married long enough to be celebrating an anniversary."
Summer lifted a shoulder. "No occasion. Just a Saturday night date with my husband."
"Who's baby-sitting?" Frannie asked. "Isn't it the nanny's night off?"
"She switched to accommodate our schedules. It isn't often Gavin and I are off on the same Saturday night." The nanny took wonderful care of their toddler Alyssa.
"So where are you going?"
"To dinner at the country club—if he ever finishes up at the hospital. I told him I'd change here instead of driving all the way home." Summer sighed. "I love living in the country, but as many hours as we spend at work, sometimes I think we just ought to live in a room at the hospital."
Frannie nodded sympathetically. Gavin was a general surgeon at the Whitehorn Hospital, the same place where Summer practiced as an immunologist. Both of them spent most of their waking hours there or at the clinic on the reservation. Since their home was twenty miles away, Summer often used the bed-and-breakfast to change clothes, wait for Gavin, or simply relax between shifts.
"So if there's no special occasion, what's with the snazzy dress and new hairstyle?" Frannie asked.
Summer shrugged. "I just think it's good for a husband to see his wife looking different every now and then. I want to keep the magic in my marriage."
Jasmine and Frannie looked at each other, then simultaneously burst into laughter.
Summer put her hands on her hips and eyed them indignantly. "And what, pray tell, is so funny about that?"
"Summer, your entire life is magic," Jasmine said.
"Yeah," Frannie seconded. "You're beautiful, you have a fantastic career, a beautiful daughter, and you're married to a successful surgeon who worships the ground you walk on."
Summer's hands fell to her sides. "Well, you know the old saying—familiarity breeds contempt. I don't want Gavin to get bored with me."
Jasmine rolled her eyes. "As if that could ever happen."
"Yeah, Summer. Gavin's not fickle like Jasmine here." Frannie grinned at her pixie-faced cousin. Jasmine was hotly pursued by all the local bachelors, but she had yet to get seriously interested in any of them. "Who's the lucky guy you're going out with tonight?"
Jasmine looked down at her neatly buffed nails. "Bill Richards. You know—one of the architectural engineers of the new resort and casino. He stayed here a few weeks ago."
"Oh, I remember him! Broad shoulders, dark hair " Summer frowned. "But I thought he left town when the con struc tion halted."
The construction of a casino on the Laughing Horse Reservation and a resort on adjacent private land was the biggest thing to ever hit Whitehorn. The development was supposed to boost the local economy, become a major revenue source for the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and create several hundred jobs for the citizens of Whitehorn. The ground had barely been broken for the project, however, when a skeleton with a bullet in its rib had been unearthed at the construction site.
And it wasn't just any old skeleton, either. Dental records had revealed that the remains belonged to Summer's father, Raven Hunter. Fortunately—well, it wasn't exactly fortunate, Frannie mentally amended, but in view of the discovery of his body, it certainly made the situation less emotionally painful— Summer had never known her father.
The police were conducting a murder investigation, and to the distress of the citizens of Whitehorn, the construction project had been put on hold until the investigation was completed. Rumor had it that the police probe could take months. If it lasted until the onset of winter weather, the grand opening could be delayed for a full year.
"I thought the engineers weren't going to return until construction resumed," Frannie remarked.
Jasmine nodded. "Evidently it has. When Bill called to ask me out, he said they've decided to build the resort's sports complex first. It's being built further to the east, on Garrett Kincaid's property."
"So the project is back on track," Summer said. "Well, that's good news for Whitehorn's economy."
"Not to mention Whitehorn's single women." Jasmine gave a mischievous smile. "The town's probably filling up right now with hunky engineers and contractors and heavy-equipment operators."
"That's right." Summer's gaze fastened on Frannie, one eyebrow arching in mock reproach. "But in order for a gal to meet any of them, she'd have to get out there and mingle."
Frannie winced, knowing she was in for another round of the old familiar lecture.
Jasmine quickly picked up on Summer's theme. "Are you going out tonight, Frannie, or are you going to hole up here like you usually do?"
Frannie swiveled her chair back to face the computer. "The books are a mess. You know how hopeless Aunt Celeste is with finances, and she's been doing all the purchasing since Mom's been gone."
"But it's Saturday night," Summer scolded. "Don't you know all work and no play makes you a dull girl?"
Frannie made a face. "I'm already dull. It's too late to worry about it."
Summer wagged a finger at her. "It's never too late to get a life, Frannie. You need to go out and meet some men."
"It's not as if they're eagerly lining up for an introduction."
"That's because you're always hiding away here," Jasmine insisted.
"That's right." Summer nodded. "You'll never meet anyone if you don't get out and circulate."
"You two do enough circulating for all of us." Desperate for a change of subject, Frannie glanced at her watch. "Speaking of circulating, when are your guys arriving?"
"Gavin should be here any minute."
Jasmine glanced at the grandfather clock in the entryway alcove, then clasped a hand to the lapels of her white terry-cloth robe. "Oh, dear. Bill will be here in ten minutes and I'm not even dressed! Summer, come help me figure out what to wear."
"Okay—if you'll let me borrow your new necklace."
Frannie heaved a sigh of relief as her cousins scurried upstairs to Jasmine's room in the back wing of the house. She knew they meant well, but she hated it when they tried to coax her into social situations. The few times she'd allowed them to drag her to the local nightspots, she'd sat on the sidelines as man after man ignored her.
Her cousins refused to accept it, but Frannie knew it was a fact: she didn't have what it took to interest a handsome, successful, desirable man—not for any length of time, anyway. The best she could hope for was a kindhearted geek, and she had yet to meet one who held the least bit of appeal.
She was better off sticking with the one thing she knew she was good at: numbers. Numbers could always be counted on. There was no guesswork, no wondering if the results would be worth the effort, no question about how things would turn out. Numbers didn't care if they were gussied up in colors and fancy fonts or set down in plain black and white. Unlike men, numbers were solid and reliable and trustworthy.
She plucked a yellow slip of paper off the top of the stack of receipts in front of her, determined to get her mind back on bookkeeping. She'd been managing the books for the Big Sky Bed & Breakfast since she was fifteen, but she still found it a challenge. Aunt Celeste's unorthodox way of operating kept it that way.
She stared at the receipt in her hand and frowned. Whitehorn Cleaners. Was this a bill for laundering business linens or Aunt Celeste's personal clothing? Lately Aunt Celeste had been even more careless than usual about labeling the receipts. With a sigh, Frannie placed the receipt in the growing stack of items she needed to ask her aunt about and reached for another.
She was inputting information from an itemized grocery list when the bell over the heavy oak front door jangled. Since Summer had said her husband was due any minute, Frannie assumed he'd arrived. "Come on in, Gavin," she called. She heard the door open, but didn't bother to turn around. "Summer's getting ready. She'll be out here in a moment."
"Well, now," said an unfamiliar voice. "I thought summer was already here, seeing as it's the end of June."
It was a low, deep throb of a voice, smoky and unrelentingly masculine. Something about it made the hair on the back of Frannie's neck stand up, as if she'd just entered an electric force field.
She jerked around to find two men standing just inside the doorway. The one on the right was middle-aged and stout, clad in denim overalls, a red plaid shirt and brown work boots. His gray hair was sparse and closely shorn, and he had a face as round and friendly as a pumpkin pie.
But the other one Frannie tried to swallow, but her mouth was suddenly so dry she felt as if her tongue had melded to the top of her mouth.
The other one My, oh, my.
He was obviously the owner of that seductive voice. Tall, lean, and muscular, he wore jeans and cowboy boots, and held a battered, buff-colored Stetson hat in his hand. Frannie wasn't sure if it was his deep tan or his denim shirt that made his eyes look so blue, but they seemed to jump out of his handsome face like blue flames, blue flames that licked at her very soul. There was a strange heat in his gaze—the heat, Frannie realized with a jolt, of sexual awareness.
He was looking at her in the way a man looks at a woman. Well, of course he was, she thought distractedly—after all, she was a woman, and he was most definitely a man. What surprised her was that he was looking at her as if she were a desirable woman. His mouth was curved into a small, amused smile, and Frannie realized he was waiting for her to speak.
She started to scramble to her feet, and tipped her chair over in the process. She leaned to pick it up, caught her foot on a chair roller, and toppled into the overturned chair face-first, leaving her bottom in the air.
"Hey, are you all right?" The handsome man quickly rounded the desk and took her arm, helping her pull herself upright.
His hand was warm, and the warmth spread rapidly through her body, causing her cheeks to burn. Frannie smoothed her sweater, embarrassed at her awkwardness. "I, uh, I'm fine. I was, uh, expecting someone else."
"Sorry to disappoint you, ma'am." His low, smoky voice managed to make the word "ma'am" sound like a caress.
His hand was still on her upper arm. Frannie felt as tongue-tied as a schoolgirl. "Oh, I'm not disappointed." The moment she said it, she wanted to bite her tongue. Why did she always manage to say and do the most awkward things whenever she was around a handsome man?
The corners of his mouth curved up further. "Well, good." He dropped his hand and stepped back.
Frannie was certain she'd never met him before, yet something about him seemed strangely familiar. "Do I know you?"
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure. I'm sure I would have remembered."
Posted April 8, 2012
Posted November 29, 2011
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